“I had pretty much a complete physical and mental breakdown”
Companies failing to provide workplace flexibility – and properly resourced teams –are helping drive staff into a burgeoning mental health crisis, a survey of over 2,000 UK tech professionals has revealed, suggesting significant work needs to be done to improve working environments across the sector.
The survey by recruiters Harvey Nash found that half of the UK’s tech professionals have been concerned about their mental health at some point, with 20 percent of IT operations staff currently concerned about their mental health.
And for those inclined to point to larger economic issues or woo for answers (“capitalism”/”austerity”/”the-bad-voodoo-of-computers”) the report points unequivocally to more immediate causes to a spiralling UK tech mental health crisis, including staff shortages, inflexibility and “lack of support”.
UK Tech Mental Health Pressure: No Staff = No Peace
The single highest cause of stress is staff shortages, the survey found, with those working over 50 hours a week twice as likely to be concerned by their mental health.
Companies deemed “unsupportive” of mental health issues meanwhile have almost three times as many workers concerned about their mental health as “very supportive” ones, with a similar trend emerging regarding how flexible an employer is on working arrangements: very inflexible businesses are triple as likely as highly flexible ones to have workers with mental health issues (31 percent versus nine percent).
Albert Ellis, Harvey Nash’s CEO, said: “No one would pretend that working in the tech sector is a walk in the park, but for it to be pushing over half its workers into a state of mental health concern is a real issue for the sector… Good work/life balance is key to retaining and attracting tech talent and keeping them well and happy.
Amber’s Story: From Startup COO to Breakdown – “I think I Wore Sacrifice as a Badge of Honour”
Amber Coster joined startup AppDynamics in 2013; rising through the ranks of the rapidly growing application performance firm over six years to become VP, Strategy & Operations (effectively a regional COO for EMEA).
She told Computer Business Review that she thrived in a “very aggressive work culture”, pushing herself to her limits at work before having what she describes as “pretty much a complete physical and mental breakdown” in the wake of Cisco’s acquisition of the company in 2017 for $3.7 billion; days before a planned IPO.
She said: “My over-the-top commitment was already not healthy; I was sacrificing a social life, my sleep; I treated the company as my baby…
“The acquisition] was a huge shock: we had an IPO cake ready, Instagram hashtags etc. then this big technology giant came and gobbled us up. That was a bit of a trigger for my health taking a downward spiral. I had been going into meetings and feeling totally exhausted, smashing the meeting, then feeling like I had been hit by a tidal wave.
“It got to the point where somebody on my team had a spreadsheet, and I could barely read the numbers. I knew that the assumptions were wrong, but I couldn’t access the part of my brain to deal with it. Then very, very quickly I had a really steep decline where I couldn’t walk for ten minutes, I’d start getting out of breath; I’d lose all of my words… it just got worse and worse and my physical health went with it.”
“I thought it was acceptable for you to have a mental health problem, but it wasn’t acceptable for me…”
She was initially misdiagnosed with glandular fever, and with so many symptoms manifesting themselves physically (migraines, rashes, severe abdominal pains) it took her – and several doctors – a long time to diagnose the issue as a mental health one.
“I had a battery of tests and finally, a Harley Street doctor told me: “You have the blood of a 20-year-old Olympian. I think you may need to see a psychiatrist – and I just cried.”
She told Computer Business Review: “Although at the time I thought I knew what a mental health problem was and I thought that I was accepting, I didn’t realise that subconsciously I thought it was acceptable for you to have a mental health problem, but it wasn’t acceptable for me… I think wore sacrifice as a badge of honor. if you’d asked me about that, then, then I definitely would have denied it and actively encouraged my team to go and ‘defragment’; with the very best intentions.”
Now the founder of Balpro – a company she launched to”help businesses balance aggressive revenue goals with employee wellbeing” – she says one of the simplest ways businesses can start to help is by getting to know their employees.
“It’s rarer than you’d think for an employer to know something like you have a dog, but understanding their life a little is really important: some people need pulling, some people need pushing; some people give themselves a really hard time and work themselves into a complete mess. You need to really understand your employees and get to know them. We we can’t just talk about being a Wednesday morning yoga class. And we can’t also just be focusing on wellness because ultimately the board also needs results. That’s that’s my goal with Balpro; helping businesses find that balance.”
12.8 Million Days
This is more than an abstract debate about the general virtues of good mental health: Health and Safety Executive (HSE) figures published in late October reveal that 12.8 million days were lost to work-related stress depression and anxiety during 2018-2019, a massive 54 percent of all working days lost due to ill health.
Ash Dey, a veteran of Atos and Accenture has also drawn from his own experiences to help businesses. He told Computer Business Review: “When I moved to Accenture, I went with the purpose of transitioning from an operations role to a consulting one, where the life balance was very different to my previous role as an IT Service Manager. Operations became a matter of not enough hours in the day to continuously improve what we were working on, whereas consulting was more short fast paced pieces of work which required a different type of mental stimulation.
“Over the first couple of months of consulting I noticed my routines changed as I prioritised client work, internal practice work, and networking events.
“I was aware I made sacrifices, starting with the routines of daily exercising and yoga, which became a few times a week and gradually just weekends. For those who knew me at this time, both of these played a big part in my day to day. With exercise and yoga no longer playing a significant part in my personal wellbeing both mentally, physically and socially, this led to a period of time where I felt the most uncomfortable in my life so far. The build up to my first anxiety attack that became more and more intense.
“I remember the feelings vividly, the moments of complete breathlessness, a tight chest, heart palpitations, complete brain fog, getting frustrated with myself; a sense of shame and scared that maybe a career I enjoyed so much may not be for me.”
“Accenture was hugely supportive by providing access to communities and programmes, I became more self-aware from the Mental Health Ally’s programme that I went through. I had an amazing manager who was very supportive, he was very good at recognising the signs and would suggest going for a walk or grabbing a tea and a chat. A colleague at the time and now close friend and I started a yoga interest group in the workplace with the support of the central wellbeing team at Accenture.
Now the founder of OpenMind Wellbeing, Ash is focussed on helping workplaces create diverse, inclusive and sustainable wellbeing programmes.
He concluded: “We spend a third of our lives at work, so it’s inevitable that it can impact our overall health and wellbeing. In my opinion you can never provide enough wellbeing support at work, there needs to be the opportunities for individuals to be themselves, the opportunity for likeminded individuals with similar interests to come together and form communities. We want to be part of the solution to making this is as simple and accessible for everyone.”